What is Marketing Automation? An Everymans Guide to Success

marketing automation

I often get asked to explain what marketing automation is. I can still recall the great excitement I felt when I first discovered marketing automation, having immediately grasped its enormous potential for myself and for my clients. Unfortunately, that initial rush of enthusiasm turned to tongue-tied frustration the very first time that I tried to explain to somebody what marketing automation actually is and what it does. Looking back, I know that I became frustrated because I tried to explain the whole thing – much too quickly – without first putting some basic foundations in place.

I’m hoping that this article will provide some cut-through for the many people whom I know are confused by marketing automation, but who also might benefit the most by utilising it.

What is Marketing Automation?

Salesforce describes marketing automation as “…technology that manages marketing processes and multifunctional campaigns, across multiple channels, automatically.”

That’s actually quite a concise and informative definition – if you happen to be fully across all of the possibilities (including the technologies) that might drive “…multifunctional campaigns, across multiple channels”. Absent that knowledge and that very clear description provided by Salesforce becomes little more than meaningless geek-speak. That’s a shame.

After a lot of years of working with marketing automation platforms and the many tools that integrate with them, I now think of marketing automation as anything that you implement which reduces or eradicates the necessity for human intervention in a marketing process.

A simple example of this would be implementing an automated email that goes to a visitor when they submit an inquiry form via your website. If prior to that, initial responses were manually handled by a person, you’ve just automated a single process. Automate enough of those single processes in an organised and coordinated manner and you have marketing automation at work.

A Helicopter View of Marketing Automation

I’m going to provide you with a glimpse of the big picture before I swoop down to let you look at some of the moving parts in marketing automation and explain how they all work together. In an ideal world, your marketing automation stack and/or platform will do a number of things very well. Without going into any substantive detail about how it all bolts together or does all of those things, I’ll bullet point the basics.

·     You’ll need a landing page builder and/or integration with your landing pages

·     You’ll need a form builder that integrates with your landing pages

·     You’ll need a basic CRM to capture, classify, segment and manage your leads

·     You’ll need a way to automate email for inquiries submitted via your landing pages

·     You’ll need a way to track unidentified visitation to your landing pages and/or website

·     You’ll need a way to track identified users of your landing pages and/or website

·     You’ll need a system to “point score” identified users of your landing pages and /or website

There is a whole lot more stuff that a marketing automation stack or platform might be able to do for you, but for now, I’m going to stick with the more basic functions.

Stack – vs – Platform

You’ll hear the words “stack” and “platform” bandied around quite a lot with marketing automation. Fortunately, this one isn’t complicated.


A stack is just a bunch of standalone tools that play nicely together in order to automate your selected processes. For example, you might have a Joomla! website, use Unbounce to manage your landing pages and forms, Mailchimp to manage your automated email responses and Zoho to manage your leads. What you have here is a stack.


Platforms tend to offer a variety of fully integrated tools. A single platform may offer a CRM, landing page builder, form builder, email campaign builder, tracking integration with your website, etc. Platforms can offer some clear advantages over using a stack – not the least of which is virtually assured compatibility between the various tools you’ll be using.

Which is Better?

There are literally tens of thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of both free and commercially available tools that you can use within a stack. I’m not even going to begin to go there with that. Suffice to say that unless you have some intermediate to advanced geek skills, a stack might not be the way to go for you. In almost all case you’ll probably be a whole lot better off using a platform. Most of this article will focus on platforms.

NB: Be aware that even the best platforms will need additional tools to complete your stack. An example of this would be your website, which in most cases will be built and managed on a completely separate platform, like WordPress or Wix and be located on an entirely different server to your marketing automation tools. All good quality marketing automation platforms can be easily integrated with your website and other commonly used marketing tools, generally by using off-the-shelf API’s.

Marketing Automation – So Much More Than Just Automation

Marketing automation platforms provide users with a variety of tools that help them automate single processes (like the automated email I already mentioned) – plus a whole lot more. It’s the “whole lot more” part where people tend to get bogged-down and outright confused. You may have heard of or even tried one or more marketing automation platforms in the past like Hubspot, ActiveCampaign, Drip or Mautic (my personal favourite). There really are a ton of choices out there. We’ll now take a brief look at some of the moving parts within a marketing automation platform.


Virtually all marketing automation platforms provide a CRM (Customer Relations Management) system of sorts. Some are extremely basic, whilst several of the bigger platforms (such as Salesforce) provide an enterprise-level CRM as part of their offering. Many marketing automation CRM’s offer easy integration (usually via an API) that will allow you to push information captured via your marketing automation platform directly to the CRM that you are already using in your business.

The truth is that many (or most) smaller businesses don’t have a CRM of any description and those that do often have little idea about how to maximise its potential. I’m firmly committed to taking a minimalist approach with marketing (and most things in life) and your marketing CRM is no different. Even if you have an existing CRM you may find there is a strong business case for utilising separate CRM’s for your marketing and the rest of your business – but more on that subject another time! For now, here is an overview of what I see as the basic things you’ll need in a CRM, for marketing automation purposes.

Contact Information

Contact information fields is a no-brainer. What you’ll need there will depend upon your individual needs. First name, Last name, Email and Telephone would generally be the bare minimum. You may require more information such as delivery or postal addresses, business names, etc. Most decent platforms will also provide for the simple creation of custom fields. Generally, the email address will be the key record that identifies individuals.

Additional Information

Once you get into the swing of using a marketing automation platform your appetite for more information is likely to grow. I’d recommend using a platform with some degree of social media integration, where possible. At the very least you’ll want some fields for social network URL’s like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. If you’re dealing in a B2B environment you’ll want fields for websites and maybe items like business registration numbers, etc. Again, the ability to create custom fields is gold.

Categories and Tagging

You’ll want to be able to categorise the people and/or companies in your CRM. Categories (often called segments) are how you group your list members at the top level. For example, if you deal with accountants and lawyers, you might want to create a category or segment for each of those groups. Maybe you’d like to sort by gender, or revenue source. Categories can do that. Some systems will also allow you to create tags. Tags might be something like Lead, Customer, Former Customer, Do Not Contact, etc. Using Categories (or Segments) together with tags allows you to sort your data in multiple, highly useful ways.


You may need to upload or download your data for a wide variety of reasons. Some CRM’s do not make this easy – possibly to try and keep you “locked-in” to using the product. Make sure that data upload and download can be performed quickly and easily – preferably in a .csv format (meaning that Microsoft Excel or a simple .txt file can read it).

Form Builder

All marketing automation platforms will offer a form builder. In fact, they’d be fairly useless without one. Form builders provide the mechanism to capture inquiries and push them to your CRM. They do this by “mapping” form fields to the matching fields in your CRM. For example, if your form has four fields, First Name, Last Name, Email and Phone that information will be pushed to the matching fields in your CRM – and they’ll have the tools to make mapping super easy. Many of the better-developed marketing automation platforms will also offer API’s that allow you to map your CRM fields to several of the most popular website form builders like Contact Form 7 or Gravity Forms.

Landing Page Builder

Landing pages are like regular website pages, but with a primary focus on capturing leads, rather than just delivering information. Good landing pages will contain a clear call to action – usually a request to complete the form – which is why you’ll need a form builder. Good landing page builders will generally offer a variety of landing page templates, drag and drop functionality and WYSIWYG editing capability. One of the beauties of using a platform is the ease with which you can add platform generated forms in the sure knowledge that they’ll be compatible with your landing page. Again, many platforms will offer a high degree of compatibility with commercial page builders like Unbounce or LeadPages, as well as integrations for commercial Themes like Thrive Leads and Divi.

Email Campaign Builder

This is where marketing automation starts to get exciting. Have you ever entered your contact details on a website and started to get regular emails about whatever it was that you inquired about? Chances are that the website was using marketing automation. An email campaign builder allows you to create an email campaign based upon the interactions of your email recipients. For example, an email goes to a newly captured lead. The recipient opens the email – which your platform is tracking – which triggers another email to be sent to them 24 hours later. Another person enters their details on the same landing page but does not open your email – which triggers a second email to go to them after 3 days. This is decision and action based marketing at work.

Most email campaign builders will offer good looking email templates which can be customised via a WYSIWYG editor. They’ll also offer drag and drop functionality that will make building your email campaigns relatively simple – although it’ll probably take you a while to get your head around exactly how it all works and master the necessary skills.

The possibilities with email campaign builders are endless and go way beyond warming up new prospects. Using your CRM and email campaign builder in tandem, you’ll be able to generate and send emails to your customers, create customer onboarding sequences, create and manage newsletters – and do a whole lot of other things. The value of a tool like this goes way beyond what you initially see.

Visitor Tracking

How would you like to know who’s visited your website, what pages they’ve been to, how long they stayed and how often they’ve returned? Marketing automation platforms can help you to discover all of that and more. All well-developed marketing automation platforms will offer simple integrations for websites built on the most popular CMS platforms like WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal – meaning you’ll be able to track visitation to your pages. Without getting too technical, tracking is achieved by using cookies, which you might want to Google if you don’t know much about them.

Anonymous Visitor Tracking

Again, without getting too technical, anonymous visitors (i.e. people not yet registered in your system) are identified by their IP address. Their visitation to your website is tracked anonymously, but when your system identifies them (i.e. when they submit a form via one of your landing pages) their earlier visitation to your website will be attributed to them. In other words, you’ll be able to see a complete history of the pages they visited from their logged IP address in the days or weeks leading up to when they finally gave up their contact information to you!

Known Visitor Tracking

Now we’re moving into really exciting territory, once again. Once your marketing automation platform has identified a visitor, you’ll be able to go into super stalker (and marketer) mode – and you can automate a heap of that. I’ll cover both of these topics in more detail, but you’ll be able to automatically switch visitors to new campaigns based upon their behaviour on your website, as well as “point score” their state of preparedness to become a customer. More often than not that information is displayed in an easy to understand, graphic form via your marketing automation interface.

Point Scoring

Point scoring is one of the most awesome features of marketing automation. It’s also one of the more difficult things to get right, but that’s certainly a topic for another day. Right now, you just need to know what point scoring is.

Imagine a prospect opens your first automated email after they submit a form on your landing page – and you give them one point for doing that. They then click a link from that email and visit a blog post that’s all about what they’ve expressed interest in – so you give them another point for that. They then click onto a related blog post – so you give them another point. They then download a white paper about your product – so you give them another two points. That is point scoring and it can provide you with a lot of valuable information, especially if you have an elongated sales cycle.

The general idea behind point scoring is to put some objectivity into determining the right moment to reach out to a prospect, which is usually when they are warm enough to buy. Marketing automation can track many more behaviours than what I’ve mentioned here, which you can also point score, but you’ll get the point (pardon the pun). Point scoring is all about knowing when the right moment is to reach out to a new prospect and marketing automation can make you look like a pro at this.

Campaign Switching

Although I don’t consider this to be an essential feature of marketing automation, it can be killer for some businesses. Campaign switching allows you to automatically switch known visitors to your website from one kind of campaign to another.

Let’s say that you sell refrigerators and a visitor initially indicated interest in a small bar fridge and gave up their contact details to you. They are getting regular emails from you (and maybe seeing remarketing campaigns) about bar fridges. Suddenly, their main refrigerator breaks down and they are now spending all of their time on your website looking at two-door fridge-freezers. Set up correctly, your marketing automation platform can detect that shift in interest and will automatically switch them to your fridge-freezer campaign.

Campaign switching is an advanced feature of marketing automation and it’ll take a bit of practice to know how to use it – but it’s clearly got potential for many types of businesses.

Putting it all Together

By now, you should have a clearer picture of the various components (or tools) that make up a marketing automation stack or platform and have some idea of what they do. In isolation, each one of these tools can be extremely powerful and will make an incredible difference to your marketing. Make these tools talk to each other and work together towards a set of desired outcomes and the whole is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Marketing automation isn’t one technology. It’s a variety of technologies working in unison.

My Final Thoughts…

I know from experience that most people who start using marketing automation give up and walk away. In most cases, that’s because they are trying to do far too much at once. Marketing automation isn’t easy to master. You’ll need a variety of skills to get it working for you and you’ll need to invest quite a bit of time in understanding and mastering the various tools. I’ve talked about those skills in depth, in a variety of other articles. Don’t try to do it all at once or you’ll get frustrated and you’ll walk away too! Master the tools one at a time, use them in the real world, then move on to the next.

For those with the tenacity to stick with it or the resources to pay an expert to help them, marketing automation can be a major game-changer. If you’re using marketing automation now, or plan to in the near future comment below and tell me about your experiences.